This fruitful collaboration by leading Belgian and Spanish Colombists is perhaps the best synthesis of the great Discoverer’s life and era since the superb biographies by Samuel Eliot Morison and Antonio Ballesteros y Beretta, whose fine Cristóbal Colón y el descubrimiento de América (Barcelona, 1945) is not yet translated into English. Subsequent archival research has supplied the present authors interesting data and insights on Columbus and his heirs. Much of their material comes from study of the Columbus family lawsuits against the Crown (tenaciously pursued until the end of the eighteenth century!), which are now being published by the Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos of Seville as Los Pleitos Colombinos.

Employing the Pleitos and their own pertinent recent monographs, the authors have also used Juan Manzano’s Cristóbal Colón. Siete años decisivos de su vida, 1485-1492 (Madrid, 1964), which helps to remedy the overemphasis that many non-Spanish authors have given to the maritime aspects of Columbus’ career. The great Navigator was a landlubber most of his life, and as Antonio Ballesteros trenchantly stated, “Sin las andanzas terrestres no se explican las marítimas” (HAHR, November 1966, p. 420).

But why the eternal interest in Columbus which motivates legions of publications? This phenomenon, the authors feel, is explained not only by historical interest in his daring vision and the resulting momentous discovery of a New World, but also by the fascination of his Ulyssean grandeur and the enigmas surrounding his life and work. For example, why was Columbus so certain that he could reach Asia by sailing West? May he have had direct testimony from that historically elusive figure, the pilot Alonso Sánchez of Huelva? What was the role of his most important maritime collaborators, the Pinzón brothers? And where are their personal papers which would contribute to a more precise history of the discovery of the New World?

One shortcoming of this work illustrates a characteristic which may be worth studying in itself: the ambivalence toward Columbus often detected in Spanish authors. This volume does amply recognize his grandness, his extraordinary capacity for adaptation and transformation, the high order of his personal talents, and his genius as a navigator. At the same time he is accused of cold materialism in his refusal to marry Beatriz Enrique de Harna, mother of his illegitimate son Ferdinand. Juan Manzano, however, has shown that Columbus did finally legitimize the boy and would have married Beatriz except for Castilian law, which made his marriage with a woman of such humble station impossible after his election to admiral’s rank. Much more damaging are the present authors’ charges that Columbus treated his Indian slaves inhumanly in order to extract every possible amount of gold, and that he failed as a colonial leader and administrator.

An interesting contribution is an original chapter on “Los Viajes Andaluces,” contemporary private maritime expeditions to the New World which the Catholic Kings authorized in direct contradiction to their agreements with Columbus. Still lacking is a systematic analysis of Columbus’ evolving geographical concepts, his supposedly uncanny navigational skills, and his ideas as a governor and colonizer. Indeed, profoundly extensive as is our present knowledge, there is much more that the Hispanic and European archives need to reveal about this enigmatic genius and his complex era.

This book is a definite contribution. It will appeal to the nonspecialist as a well-written introduction with many helpful maps and illustrations, and to the specialist as a fine synthesis incorporating the latest research and the newest interpretations. Thus it demonstrates that a scholarly work can also be made highly attractive to a larger reading public.